Bringing “Dry” Content to Life – Episode 11

In this episode, Beth shares several recommendations about how to work with course content that you might, at first, consider dry or boring and make it come alive for your learners. It’s not the content of our sessions that is naturally “dry” – it’s how we approach it when we’re designing the learning experience!

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Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

Hello, it’s great to have you listening in to this episode today. This is going to be a fun one, I think, and I hope it’ll give you some ideas for your learning design and your facilitation practice, because we’re going to be talking about how to make “dry” content interesting and how to make our content come alive – no matter what the topic of the content is.

This is an issue that, in my work is a learning designer, it comes up from time to time – especially from clients or people I’m working with – where they admit that their content is “dry”. I guess I’ll say right off the bat that I don’t think content is dry, I think the way we approach our content is dry, or boring, or uninspired, or non creative. So I’d like to share with you some examples and some ideas and some tips today for you to look at your content maybe in a different way – particularly the content that you’re not so excited about – and how do you really look at it with that designer’s eye, that designer’s mindset, to think about how you can bring a creative approach to your content to help it come alive for whoever your learners are. To get them engaged, to get them even excited about the topic, and certainly for the end result, which is actually helping people learn about the thing that you want them to learn.

Okay, so I think I’ve got about five tips for you. That is my intention [chuckles] with this episode. I might have more in the end. But I have at least five things for you to think about that I would really focus on myself, if I were working with a client with content particularly that was unfamiliar to me, but hopefully all content. I’m going to share these with you and hopefully get you started thinking about how to attack and work with and develop your content into some engaging, interesting learning for your learners.

The first thing I’d like you to think about is backing up to the beginning. So I know a lot of people come to the design of learning events, whether we’re talking about workshops or courses – online or in person, doesn’t matter. A lot of people start with the content, and they just kind of start throwing, you know, topics together and do a content dump. And I would like to encourage you, as I say a lot and probably over the duration of this podcast I will continue to say it over and over again, to back up to the beginning. Why do you think you need a course in the first place? What’s going on in the environment that makes you or someone else think that a course needs to be created? Is something not working properly? Are there rules not being followed? What’s happening? And with who? And where? [laughs] I want you to ask all the questions you need to ask of yourself or your client or whoever it happens to be, about why you think you need a course. Often you can kind of zero in on pain points, sometimes I call them, that are happening. There’s usually something wrong that is going on that makes people think that they need a course. And if we look intently at the pain points, you know, those things that are, you know, the worst result so to speak, the wrong thing that’s happening in the environment, sometimes those can be a clue to the content and the way we approach the content in the actual course or workshop, because it gives us the impact piece. I mean, why do we create learning? Because we’re trying to create some sort of behaviour change opportunity for our learners. And we want them to do something differently. Approach something the right way or whatever. And so the thing that’s not happening can often be a clue for you to dig into to help make content come alive. Tell the stories of those pain points. Show the impact of doing it the right way on the final result. So here I really want you to think, what are the consequences or the impact of not doing the right thing? What do people need to do? So there’s kind of storytelling in there, and examples and situations and so on that you can dig into that help the content come to life for the learner.

I’ll give you one example that might be in this same direction. So I was working with the client, a couple of years ago I would say, where I realized through my interactions with them – I was helping them learn how to facilitate something – that in landfills there are lots of fires that break out. I’d actually never really thought about this before. I mean I put my garbage on the curb, I don’t really think about what happens at landfills. But this person was – in their preparation for the thing that they were going to teach – they were trying to figure out how to address this topic. Because apparently, if we throw things like batteries into the garbage, you know, that further contributes to the possibility that there might be a fire in the landfill. And I remember thinking, wow, like, I had no idea that there were lots of fires happening in landfills. And for me, that is something that we can really grab on to as learning designers because it’s a consequence thing. It’s an impact thing. If people knew that they were dealing with all these fires at the landfill and if we were better at throwing our garbage out – the things that actually should be in there and should not – maybe this would have an impact on lessening fire or danger or people getting hurt while working at the landfill, that would probably make us more interested in the topic. It would heighten our emotions, I think, around the topic. And so this consequence piece…like show us as your learners, what the difference is that’s going to happen because of learning the thing.

So fires at the landfill is just one example. And I guess it’s bringing me to really make sure you’re aware that emotions, bringing emotions into a learning experience – in a good way, I’m not talking about something that’s really going to traumatize people, we certainly don’t want that – but if you can bring emotions into a learning experience that’s going to help people remember it more. And so for me, you know, this was a couple of years ago that I learned about this thing about fires at the landfill. Like, it really did help me connect my behaviour at home to the end result of what happens when garbage goes to the landfill. And I have thought about that thing that I’ve learned ever since. So what is that thing for you that you can make the connection for your learners between the behaviour and the end result or the consequence or the impact? Maybe there’s a clue there into how you can enliven your content. So back up to the purpose, why are you having the course? Why aren’t people doing the thing or doing it right? What’s happening? What are those consequences that are happening and can be impacted by people learning about what you want to teach them?

Okay, next thing is around – and if you know me, you know, this is coming next – learning outcomes. [laughs] Okay, so I talk a lot and I dig into learning outcomes quite a bit with my clients, because I think if we paid more attention to learning outcomes – the behaviour, the knowledge, etc, change that we want to see in our learners by the end of the learning experience, or sometime after the experience – the more we realize how powerful the identification and writing of learning outcomes is, to the way we design our session and all the activities and so on that we bring into our session, learning outcomes are a clue to help you make your content less dry. And I would actually say it the other way and say, more interesting, more engaging for your learners. A lot of people don’t really realize how powerful learning outcomes can be to your designing. When you are able to identify ‘here are the things that learners need to change in terms of their behaviour’, it automatically helps you get out of your learning experience the things that don’t really need to be there. So that helps you make it less dry because it means that you’re not just throwing all this content at people without having done the work of thinking about whether it aligns with learning outcomes or not. So when you are very clear on your learning outcomes for your learners, and you design to those and you choose activities for learners to participate in that are only aligned to those learning outcomes, then you can pare down your content and get the stuff out of there that they don’t really need and you don’t need in the session. So then you don’t have to say, well, I got to get through these 66 slides in this 30 minute presentation. [laughs] And in fact, you can ensure that it’s not actually a presentation that you’re making, it’s a participatory learning experience that you’re facilitating. So think about the end result. That’s learning outcomes. And you can call it backwards design, starting from the end and working backwards, you know, what activities are going to help you get the learners to the end. But I want you to think about what’s meaningful, what’s relevant to the situation, and that is writing meaningful, measurable, observable learning outcomes that are related to the purpose piece we talked about earlier. So over these first two tips, you’re going to be backing up, asking yourself why you’re having a course. Will having a course solve the issue that you’re identifying? And then what are those learning outcomes that are going to take your learners into an active, participatory experience? And that’s going to help make it less dry.

All right, a third thing for you. Consider the people. And by ‘people’, I mean your learners. So we’ve already been talking about learning outcomes. Those are the things that we write for our learners, with our learners in mind. We want and care about their behaviour change and their knowledge change because of the learning experience. So I want you to do even more and think, okay, these learners that I have for this particular session, or this particular experience, I want you to carry out a learner analysis and a needs assessment on those learners. Because the more you learn about your learners…what they know, what they don’t know, what’s interesting to them? Where do they work? Are they in the field? Are they in an office? What demographic do they come from? Dig into your learners and figure out who they are, because the more you can unlock things about them, the easier it is to design an experience for that particular group. And you need to put yourselves in the shoes of your learners to say, well, if I were them, would this be something I’d want to do? Would this content be interesting? Is this necessary? Is this relevant? Is this meaningful to their lives and the things that they know about? Can I come up with metaphors or analogies that I can relate to particularly this group about the content because they’re going to understand this other thing, and then, therefore, I’m going to, you know, put my new content in there and kind of hook their learning on to something they already know about. So the more you get to know your learners and find out about them, you’re going to automatically be able to make your content and your session less dry, because you’ve actually cared about designing something that your learners are going to want to engage in. So consider the people. And part of that too, is thinking about, you’re always going to put at the centre of your process – you know, really forward in your mind – is what is the interaction that you’re creating between yourself, as the facilitator of the learning experience, and the learners, and then of course the interaction between the learners as well. So if you consider the people as you design your experience, you are going to keep that necessity to have interaction and to have participation at the forefront, which is automatically going to help people immerse themselves in your experience and make it more interesting for them.

I would guess [laughs], because I know this, you know, the more we just talk at people and they sit there as sort of listening receptacles, it’s going to be dry for them. Because we can only listen for so long before we just start to check mentally out of the building. So consider who you’ve got and what makes them tick and then design something that’s interactive for them that they can participate in and share what they know and ask the good questions and so on. And generate content, you know, from the group, not just from you as the facilitator of learning. That’s the difference between training and facilitation, in some respects. Facilitating is bringing content out of your learners because they probably do know something about your topic or something in another part of their life that they can relate to the topic. So consider the people is my third tip.

The fourth way I think you can make something come alive for your learners is through different things that we can do to tell stories. We are all humans that come to learning experiences, and humans have one thing in common, at the very least, and that is that we like stories. We like to tell stories and we like to hear stories and stories are illustrative of things for us. We can pack a lot of good stuff into a story and it helps it come alive, that content, for your learner. How do we tell stories? There are so many ways but some of them are cases, scenarios, roleplays, examples. You can bring things in from the news. You can bring in different media clips of different stories. You know, you can use audio, you can use video. How are you going to use the concept of storytelling to make your content come alive for your learners? Stories can actually be told in very tiny little ways with just an analogy or a metaphor. So you don’t have to have this long big thing you know, to tell a tale, if you’re not, you know, if you don’t consider yourself a storyteller. A little tiny story, by just making an analogy or a metaphor, can also be something to help people grasp onto and understand your content just that much better. So think about how you can use storytelling approaches with your content to make it come alive for your learners. And again I go back to what I said before about the pain points, the impact, the consequences pieces. I mean if your topic is hitting the news or has in the past in any way, shape or form, there will be a ton of things that you can pull from the media to get people involved and excited, and so on. But that’s not the only way. You know, there’s cases and scenarios and so on, the other things that I mentioned. So how are you going to bring storytelling and the art of storytelling into your session, to make things come alive for your learners?

The last tip I want to give you around how to make “dry” content interesting is to get help from a colleague or a friend, or a designer or some other person that can help you along the way when you are designing your learning experience that you’re working on. Can we do great work alone when we’re designing and facilitating learning? Yes, of course. I mean, you can do this work alone and use the strategies that I’ve told you up until this point. But you know what? Whenever I get help from a friend or a colleague they help me see things that I couldn’t see. They asked me good questions, they bring forward ideas and recommendations from their experiences that they’ve had in the past. I think when we involve other people in our work, we can automatically just make a better product for our learners because there’s two of us doing the work. We aren’t the same people, we’re unique individuals. You can show one person, you can show more than one person. Go around and get help from other people to enhance your design as you’re working on it. Of course you want to involve subject matter experts in this, especially if you’re not the one that is the subject matter expert and somehow you’ve been tasked with facilitating the learning experience. I know that happens sometimes for say, human resources professionals. Like you might teach a number of different topics but you’re not necessarily a subject matter expert in all of those different topics. So go and look for the subject matter experts when you’re doing your design work and ask them questions. And ask them, you know, how can I make this content come alive for the learners? And see if you can get help from people who are actually doing the work, who are in the field, who have seen the examples and can tell the stories to you to help you make it come alive for your learners. In this vein, maybe you can even talk to past learners of the workshop – maybe you’re redesigning something, and you want to make it even better. Go talk to people who took it before. Talk to people who are going to come to the session and see what they’re hoping to get out of it and ask them what they need. You know, the more you can ask other people to give you ideas about how to design the learning experience so that it’s really, really effective, you’re just gonna get a better product in the end, aren’t you? I mean, it can’t help but be better when we involve other people in the ideation around what the upcoming learning experience is going to look like.

Now, I said I was going to give you five tips. And I actually did just give you five tips. But you know what, I’m going to add in another tip for you. A sixth tip! Because I’m realizing as I’m recording this that I forgot to talk about how we show up as facilitators of learning when we are with the group. And that has so much impact on the way the group will feel about the content. So, for example, if you’re thinking or you actually say that the content is dry, it’s going to really affect the learners, isn’t it? I mean, that’s not a good thing. I’ve seen people do that. And I think I actually talked about it recently on a podcast episode where I showed up as a learner to somebody else’s session, for just kind of a personal reason, and someone said, “This is going to be a very long day.” [laughs] They said that at the beginning of the learning experience! And as a learning designer sitting in the group I just died inside because I thought, well, if she thinks it’s going to be a pretty long day, I guess it really is going to be a pretty long day. [laughs] If she’s not excited about the content she’s teaching us today, how the heck am I going to be excited about it, too?! So if you aren’t totally excited about your content, I suppose you should ask yourself whether you’re the proper person to facilitate the learning experience. But I mean, sometimes we’re in that situation where we’re teaching content that’s not necessarily the thing we’re most excited about. But I invite you to dive in and try to find a way. Find the thing that you’re excited about teaching, that you’re excited about exploring with the group. And when you find that for yourself, I think you’re going to show up as more of an exciting presence to guide the learning experience for your learners than you normally would have. You need to dig deep inside yourself to find the interesting pieces of the content and mirror that and show that to your learners. Because if we don’t think our content is interesting, why do we think our learners are going to come along for that ride and think it’s interesting and want to make the changes that we’re talking about? They won’t. So it all starts with us. And I’m surprised actually [laughs] that I didn’t remember that until now. But really, you know, our attitudes and the way we we show up with a group is so important in this topic about how to make “dry” content interesting. Again, no content by itself, is dry. It’s just the way we approach it, with our attitudes about it and the design that we take to create the actual session.

So I’ve given you a lot here, I’m going to just quickly recap them for you, these six tips. So first one is back up to the beginning. Ask yourself what’s happening in the environment around the topic that you want to teach, and can you find clues in there about how to make things interesting? Second, remember your learning outcomes. Think about the end result and think about how you can use your learning outcomes to guide you to the most important things, and then make those things interesting and interactive. Third, consider the people. Dig in to learn more about your learners and what makes them tick, and what they need and what’s interesting to them and then design for those people. Fourth, make it come alive through storytelling techniques, like cases and scenarios and metaphors and everything you can do to tell tiny and big stories about your content to hook people in. Five, get help, don’t do it alone, ask for help from other people. And six, think about how you show up, and how you can get excited about the content so that your learners can do the same.

I wish you so much joy in going back to look at your workshops and courses to think about how you can redesign and recreate those bits of your courses that might be kind of dry, where you’re sort of talking too much and not letting people participate. Or you know you’ve felt a lack of energy from your learners in the past. Go back and think about these strategies to redesign your content. And also think about you as a facilitator and how you’re continuing to grow on your journey to be a courageous, human, authentic presence in the room. Have fun with that.

[Episode outro]
In the next episode of Facilitating on Purpose, I talk with Maya Chupkov. Maya is the host, editor, producer, and creator of Proud Stutter, a podcast about shifting the narrative around stuttering, one conversation at a time. I met Maya online through my friend and colleague Mary Chan, who is my audio editor for this podcast. Mary had Maya on as a guest on her podcast. called A Podcaster’s Guide to a Visible Voice, and when I heard Mary and Maya talking about verbal diversity in podcasting, it made me think, what about verbal diversity in facilitation? So I reached out to Maya and we had a great conversation about stuttering and facilitation. We talk about some of the challenges that a person might face if they have a stutter and are doing facilitation work. But you know what? We also talk about the benefits to of the same. There can be benefits for people who stutter and do facilitation work. So I hope you join us next time, Maya Chupkov and I, on the next episode. See you then.

[Show outro]
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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